By: Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Recently I met with a family seeking a neuropsychological evaluation for their daughter. After talking about their reasons for pursuing testing, the parents asked me, “So…do you think this will help? Is this type of testing what our child needs?” It’s an important question and one I’m sure many families wonder about but don’t always ask. A comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation can be of tremendous value, but the process requires time and energy as well as a financial investment, so it makes sense to consider this question carefully.
Though it may be surprising to hear this coming from a neuropsychologist, the answer to the question of whether to have a child evaluated is not always clear-cut. For instance, parents sometimes wonder if there is practical benefit to seeking testing when a child or adolescent already has a diagnosis but there are questions about its accuracy. Consider the following scenario as an example. A child with issues regulating attention and with weaknesses in social skills has a diagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Her therapist has raised the question of whether a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) might better explain the issues the child is facing. Inattention can be present in both ADHD and ASD, and both conditions can result in social difficulties. Especially if a child is already receiving appropriate services, does the diagnostic label matter, and is it worth pursuing formal assessment?
There are valid arguments to be made in favor of seeking an evaluation in this type of situation and valid arguments to support choosing not to invest in an assessment. In such a scenario, I would encourage a family to consider the following questions:
- Will diagnostic clarification address unanswered questions that previous diagnoses have not fully addressed?
Sometimes an established diagnosis partially explains a child’s issues but there are lingering questions about other aspects of a child’s presentation. If a different or additional diagnosis could fill in the gaps, it may be worth assessing.
- Could testing help identify your child’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses?
Especially when an existing diagnosis has been made without testing (for instance by a therapist or physician), there may be important aspects of a child’s neuropsychological profile that have not yet been identified. For instance, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder share certain key features, but they also differ in significant ways. A diagnosis alone cannot capture the nuances of an individual child’s strengths and weaknesses, while a full neuropsychological evaluation can more fully describe a child on an individual level.
- Will understanding the root of the problem help guide recommendations?
NESCA’s clinic director compares a child’s observable difficulties to the “tip of an iceberg.” There are inevitably hidden underlying factors, and discerning these can be important in determining how to address the issues that are visible on the surface. For example, problems with social interactions can arise from deficits in social communication (e.g., difficulty interpreting facial expressions), as seen in Autism. Alternatively, a child with ADHD may encounter social challenges because they have trouble paying attention to relevant social cues or because impulsivity leads them to behave inappropriately. Someone with social phobia may have few relationships because their anxiety drives them to avoid social interactions. Effective intervention in each of these cases requires a nuanced approach that targets not just the surface issue but the factors underlying it.
- Will establishing a particular diagnosis open up opportunities for additional support and resources that may be important?
In some cases, there are specific resources that are available to individuals with particular diagnoses. For instance, in Massachusetts, individuals with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder or Intellectual Disability may be eligible to receive services through the Department of Developmental Services. If qualifying for such services could be beneficial, diagnostic clarification may be important.
More broadly, the internet and social media have allowed people with shared diagnoses to connect in new ways. The opportunity to connect with others experiencing similar difficulties can be invaluable, and online communities can provide a sense of support, educational information, and practical resources for children and parents alike.
The answers to these questions and to the bigger question of whether to seek neuropsychological evaluation will be different for different families. There are many factors to weigh in making the decision to seek testing. If you are considering an assessment for your child and need additional information to make an informed decision, answers to frequently asked questions about neuropsychological evaluation can be found on NESCA’s website.
About the Author
Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D., provides comprehensive evaluation services for children, adolescents, and young adults with often complex presentations. She particularly enjoys working with individuals who have concerns about attention and executive functioning, language-based learning disorders, and those with overlapping cognitive and social/emotional difficulties.
Prior to joining NESCA, Dr. Rodriguez worked in private practice, where she completed assessments with high-functioning students presenting with complex cognitive profiles whose areas of weakness may have gone previously undiagnosed. Dr. Rodriguez’s experience also includes pre- and post-doctoral training in the Learning Disability Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Neurodevelopmental Center at MassGeneral for Children/North Shore Medical Center. Dr. Rodriguez has spent significant time working with students in academic settings, including k-12 public and charter school systems and private academic programs, such as the Threshold Program at Lesley University.
Dr. Rodriguez earned her Psy.D. from William James College in 2012, where her coursework and practicum training focused on clinical work with children and adolescents and on assessment. Her doctoral thesis centered on cultural issues related to evaluation.
Dr. Rodriguez lives north of Boston with her husband and three young children. She enjoys spending time outdoors hiking and bike riding with her family, practicing yoga, and reading.
To book a consultation with Dr. Rodriguez or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, Londonderry, New Hampshire, and staff in greater Burlington, Vermont, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.